Leave it to the New York Knicks to stumble into a short-term solution by leaning heavily on one of the main causes of their long-term problems.
While there's no easy way to right that wrong (thanks to the short-sighted amnesty of Chauncey Billups in 2011), there is a chance to make the best of a bad disastrous situation. Stoudemire is doing everything his body will allow to make the latter a reality.
The Knicks, winners of four straight, are finally starting to show some signs of life. And they're doing it because the player so many had left for dead has a basketball pulse once again.
Back Where He Belongs
The Knicks have been right to keep a pair of kid gloves at the ready for their handling of Stoudemire.
The 31-year-old has a fragile frame no longer capable of withstanding the nightly wear and tear of the NBA life. Since his Big Apple arrival in 2010, Stoudemire has only appeared in 204 of a possible 295 games.
Even with this justifiable caution, though, there comes a time when chances need to be taken. With the championship-hopeful Knicks at serious risk of being left out of one of the weakest Eastern Conference playoff fields in history, that bridge has been crossed.
Knicks coach Mike Woodson, in need of life preservers for both himself and his team, finally took his turn at the poker table and gambled on Stoudemire's ability to survive with the starting five. The sample size is still incredibly small, but so far it appears the coach might have drawn pocket aces:
Stoudemire gives Carmelo Anthony something the (likely) free-agent-to-be hasn't had all season—a reliable secondary scorer.
The pair have found a chemistry over its past eight games together that didn't exist over its first 38 appearances of the season. This suddenly dynamic duo has propelled the Knicks to a wildly efficient offense that plays just enough defense to keep the victories coming.
|Period||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
|First 38 games together||101.3||107.5||Minus-6.2|
|Last eight appearances||113.9||107.4||Plus-6.5|
To give those numbers some context, a 113.9 offensive rating extrapolated over the entire season would easily be the league's best (the Miami Heat hold the category's top spot with a 110.0 mark). The plus-6.5 net rating would be the sixth-highest in the NBA.
There is no secret science behind these figures. The Knicks are simply learning what can happen when their two best players each find a spot in the starting lineup, as Bleacher Report's Maxwell Ogden noted:
Who knew that starting Carmelo and Amar'e alongside each other could be a way to solve New York's issues? (Yes, that's sarcasm) #NBA— Maxwell Ogden (@MaxwellOgden) March 9, 2014
When starting center Tyson Chandler was scratched for personal reasons from New York's last outing—a 123-110 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday night—Woodson took his experiment one step further. The coach gave Stoudemire Chandler's spot, freeing the big man to do damage around the basket.
And that's exactly what Stoudemire did: 23 points on 9-of-10 shooting in 29 minutes.
"Normally with Tyson in the game I’m a stretch 4, a guy that shoots the jumpers on the outside," Stoudemire said after the win, via Fred Kerber of the New York Post. "When Tyson is out of the game I’m the guy that rolls to the basket to get easy baskets close to the rim."
Stoudemire has flashed a deft shooting touch from mid-range (44.2 percent from beyond five feet of the basket), but he still does his best work on the interior (63.6 percent shooting within five feet of the cup). Age and injuries might have sapped some of his explosiveness, but he has enough left in his legs to finish over the top of his defender.
The more minutes he can log near the basket, the better off he'll be. He's quickly showing, though, that simply staying on the floor has been quite the lift for this previously sinking ship.
Supplying a Fire
For the longest time, the Knicks looked (and, let's be honest, might still be) dead in the water.
After the team dropped a listless 107-98 loss to the free-falling Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 22, the white flag seemed to waving out in front of Madison Square Garden.
"The Knicks showed all the signs of surrender Saturday in Atlanta, finishing a brutal road trip with another giveaway to another bad team," The Record's Steve Popper wrote. "Anthony has seen the shoulders sagging, the eyes dropping. He insists he won't do it himself, but the losing has worn him down."
The Knicks were staggering from three-plus months of damage, some self-inflicted, some outside of their control. If they hadn't yet thrown in the towel, they had it balled up and their arm cocked back.
It's hard to hear a rally cry from the center of a tire fire, and perhaps one still hasn't sounded inside the Empire State.
Even if inspiration hasn't hit this team, though, there has to at least be an appreciation of Stoudemire's effort. While the rest of us were penning his death certificate, the big man reached for the defibrillator and resuscitated himself:
Amar'e man, there is no quit in him! He has the heart of a lion!— Anthony Donahue (@AnthonyMSG) March 11, 2014
"Our back is against the wall. We can't fold right now," Stoudemire said after an 18-point, eight-rebound performance in New York's 118-106 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Mar. 5, via Mark Herrmann of Newsday. "We've got to continue to play hard, so I feel that my energy...guys can feed off that."
They've been feeding off more than just his energy.
He's provided stability to a chaotic environment and used his off-court effort to produce on-court results:
Over the last 4 games, the @nyknicks (4-0) have a team best +25.8 NetRtg w/ Amar'e on the floor, just +0.6 w/ him off (team's 2nd worst)— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 11, 2014
"I have been working extremely hard to get back to my normal self," Stoudemire said after his 23-point outing against the Sixers, via Jeff Bernstein of The Associated Press. "My confidence is there. It never left."
His confidence has been evident, as has the talent he still possesses.
The real question, though, is whether they can make consistent appearances over the stretch run.
That's the real key for the Knicks, and unfortunately the hardest part of this story to buy.
Injuries—or at least their lingering effects—will continue to determine how big a role he can play. He's already been ruled out of Wednesday's tilt with the Boston Celtics, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
Amar'e Stoudemire will not play tonight. Team is calling it a recovery day for his knee. Tyson Chandler (personal reasons) is also out.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) March 12, 2014
It might just feel like part of the process at this point, but it's troubling nonetheless. The Knicks can't afford to have any more stumbles, and Stoudemire can't be relied on to help with that fight on a nightly basis.
There's also the question of whether his stat sheets might have been a bit inflated by the competition he's faced. Three of New York's last four opponents have bottom-11 defensive ratings (Utah Jazz, 30th, Cleveland Cavaliers, 20th and the Sixers, 28th) and the fourth is a middle-of-the-pack unit (Minnesota Timberwolves, 13th).
That doesn't mean his mini-resurgence should be completely written off, but rather that it's not a guarantee for future performances.
He has the pieces to help New York make a late-season playoff climb, but he doesn't have the knees to balance that goal across his shoulders.
Then again, the fact he's made it this far has already proven so many of us wrong already. Maybe he'll be serving us another helping of crow before the season is over.